PULLMAN — It was less than 10 years ago when Washington State University’s football team began its run of three consecutive 10-win seasons, a stretch unmatched in school history.
But the Cougars are coming off two seasons in which they won three games combined as coach Paul Wulff continues a rebuilding process aimed at returning WSU to the Pac-10’s upper echelon.
If the third year of Wulff’s tenure is to be more akin to the 10-win seasons than to the last couple, the Cougars must take long strides in crucial areas.
Here is a step-by-step examination of those key elements:
Player, Offense: Jeff Tuel
The sophomore quarterback is bigger (up to 211 pounds), stronger and ready to take the reins of the offense.
“He came in pretty lean, like most high school kids do,” said offensive coordinator Todd Sturdy. “His strength gains are a big difference than where he was a year ago. At this level, that’s a huge, huge thing.”
A year ago he first played well in relief at USC, then started the next week at Oregon. Before his season ended due to a knee injury suffered at Arizona, Tuel threw for 789 yards and completed 58.7 percent of his passes.
“He played,” said Sturdy, when asked about the mental strides. “He got to experience it. He played in some big venues. You can’t replace that. That’s a huge factor in his development, his growth.”
Tuel showed those improvements in spring, leading the no-huddle offense with a confidence that wasn’t as evident in the fall. He also completed 25 of 41 (61 percent) of his spring passes for 297 yards, three touchdowns and one interception.
“I think he went out in the spring game and operated really well,” Sturdy said of Tuel’s 11-of-16 passing performance. “You saw a level of confidence in his play that was impressive.”
Player, defense: Middle linebacker
“That job’s up for grabs,” co-defensive coordinator Chris Ball said. “We’re still looking for someone to step up and take it and run with it.”
Going into camp junior Mike Ledgerwood (6-0, 233) is listed as the starter with little-used senior Hallston Higgins (5-11, 225) and redshirt freshman Darren Markle (6-1, 225) as backups.
So what is Ball looking for?
“A guy that’s going to run from sideline to sideline, and be able to make plays,” he said. “He’s got to be big enough to hold up in there inside and be able to run downhill and tackle the running back on a consistent basis.”
Team, defense: Tackles
Though this group has been thinned due to academic failings and Dan Spitz’s nine-game suspension for failing a drug test, it may still be in better shape than any time in Wulff’s tenure.
Brandon Rankin (6-5, 271) and Bernard Wolfgramm (6-3, 288), who seems at near 100 percent after dealing with back issues and academic troubles, are penciled in as the starters.
Anthony Laurenzi (6-3, 286) is the lone experienced backup, though redshirt freshman Justin Clayton (6-4, 271) impressed in the spring.
Junior college transfer Steven Hoffart (6-4, 270) attended summer school and Al Lapuaho, who committed late from Snow College, is expected to be approved for admission soon.
Team, offense: Line
The group struggled last season, yielding 53 sacks (second-most in the nation) and limiting the running game to a Pac-10 low 2.4 yards a carry, major reasons why WSU was 119th (out of 120) in the nation in total offense (249 yards a game) and scoring offense (12 points).
Injuries did play a part — 10 different players started a game, with only graduated center Kenny Alfred and tackle Micah Hannam (6-foot-4, 285) starting every game. Whatever the reasons, the failings cost assistant coach Harold Etheridge his job, replaced by veteran Steve Morton.
With five of those starters returning, along with Andrew Roxas (6-2, 304), who redshirted last season, and two junior college transfer tackles, Wade Jacobson (6-6, 307) and David Gonzales (6-6, 281), this group must improve.
“If we’re not blocking, nothing is going to happen,” said 6-4, 304-pound Zack Williams, who started seven games at guard last season. “The quarterback is not going to be able to throw the ball, running back’s not going to be able to run the ball, receivers aren’t going to be able to catch the ball.
“If we’re not going to get the job done up front, then the offense isn’t going to succeed.”
The group did better in the spring, according to Sturdy, in large part due to increased competition.
“Having (Jacobson and Gonzales) come in has helped us from the competitive standpoint,” Sturdy said.
Game, Oklahoma State
The Cowboys, coming off a 9-4, Cotton Bowl season, are in the role of favorites — two-touchdown favorites in early lines. But they have a lot of holes to fill.
WSU is not the same team schematically that faced Oklahoma State two years ago, especially on defense, so the previous experience shouldn’t be a factor.
If the Cougars can find a way to pull an upset, it would not only end a nine-game losing streak, it could also give a young team (WSU has 26 first- or second-year players in its camp-opening two deep) the confidence it needs to overcome the last two seasons.
Coach, Steve Morton
The ultra-experienced Morton — he’s coached at the collegiate level since starting as a grad assistant at WSU in 1975 — not only knows how to teach offensive line play, but knows his way around Pullman as well.
A former Cougar player, he is in his second stint at Washington State — he was Wulff’s line coach a couple years — and in his fifth go-round in the Pac-10.
“He’s a little more old-school,” Williams said. “He’s been teaching it a while, so his stuff is pretty basic. He just wants us to get the job done.”
If Morton can get the job done, the Cougars should be able to avoid the third-and-long situations that derailed the offense last season.
“Last year we were hurt by a lot of injuries, so a lot of people had to play early (and) it kind of tested their manhood,” Williams said. “Nobody goes into a season wanting to give up over 50 sacks. It’s something we want to fix. We want to keep the quarterback clean, open up holes. That’s our plan this year.”